Made in Italy: From Milan, a closing look at Fendi, Ferragamo and Dolce and Gabbana

Alexander Fury
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A look from the autumn/winter 2014 Fendi show

Following their occupation of Paris in 1940, the Nazis tried to move the couture industry lock, stock and stays to Berlin. The then-head of the Chambre Syndicale, the couturier Lucien Lelong, declared “You can impose what you will by force, but Paris’ haute couture is not transferrable… It exists in Paris or it does not exist at all.”

It’s an idea that still rings true – only in Paris can you still find the highly specialised craftsmen that make haute couture what it is, the bottiers, the embroiderers, the plumassier (singular: there’s only one left, Lemarié, charged with creating feathery fluff for everyone, as well as about 30,000 Chanel camellias every year).

Italy also has a similar stamp of locale on its designers, albeit for the mass-manufacture of clothing rather than painstaking hand-craftsmanship. The fabric mills are located around Lake Como, leather specialists cluster in the Florence region, Umbria yields superb knitwear. It’s not only Milanese-based firms who manufacture in these high-tech factories, but most of the fashion world.

This week, in Milan, it’s been interesting to see designers grappling with notions of Italian identity in clothing. Not in the sense of flying the flag and stamping national pride across the clothes like an AC Milan football kit, but really asserting what the label “Made In Italy” can mean today, in a global marketplace.

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A simple outfit from Massimiliano Giornetti's Salvatore Ferragamo show

Massimiliano Giornetti, the designer of Salvatore Ferragamo, is a clever man. After a few seasons when the focus has seemed to be on catwalk impact rather than the actual garments themselves, for autumn/winter 2014 he honed in, intently, on working and reworking the surfaces of his textiles. Textile innovation is something the Italians do very well: in this case, Giornetti experimented with needle-punching (like many an Italian label) to fuse two different fabrics together. Sometimes one of those fabrics was finely pleated, creating a surface texture rather than movement. There were also painted pleats in lurex knit forming skirts and dresses, and some crafty stuff with fading animal prints in and out. Shoes were antiqued like men’s brogues, the heels formed from a single piece of leather steam-moulded, rather than seamed. The palette was dark, rich but not flashy.

Rich but not flashy is exactly what Ferragamo should be. When so many clothes seemed designed for two-dimensional catwalk pictures, there’s something alluring in a garment you have to touch and turn inside-out to fully appreciate. It was only when Giornetti lead me by the hand, pulling pleats apart and flipping hems, that you could really appreciate the depth of the work in their surfaces. The fantastic thing was that nothing hung heavy with effort. That lightness, that finesse, is quintessentially Italian.

It’s not just centred in Milan. The Fendi label is still based in Rome, the centre of the Italian alta moda (the Mediterranean equivalent of the haute couture) when Rome, Florence and Milan stylishly slugged it out for supremacy on the Italian peninsula.

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Karl Lagerfeld's "Fur escape" for Fendi

There’s something quintessentially Roman about Fendi at its best, although Karl Lagerfeld was uncharacteristically diplomatic in stamping his invites with “Made In Italy” rather than “Fendi Roma”. Maybe that’s because Rome stamped its way throughout the entire Fendi collection.

There was something big, and bold, and grand about this show. Maybe it was the ratta-tap-tap military tattoo on Michel Gaubert’s soundtrack that established a certain military pomp and ceremony to proceedings, or the fact Lagerfeld dubbed the first few exits “the fur escape,” where tufts of beaver seemed to burst forth from fissures in dresses, like chinks in armour. Silhouettes were long, a touch thirties, a little 1918. It was an old-fashioned kind of elegance, like the clutches of orchids pinned incongruously to fur stoles.

Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana’s show was a little incongruous too. They offered odes to the Mitteleuropa fairytales of the Brothers Grimm: their Little Red Riding Hood was clad in alpaca, their Snow Whites billowed in metres of printed chiffon, their woodland creatures were rendered as faux naïf appliques on lace, knits and brocades. It harked back to the dark recesses of the Black Forest, to medieval France and Denmark, to lands as far-flung from their usual southern-Italian stomping grounds as humanly possible.

Except, perhaps, in the eyes of Messrs Dolce and Gabbana. “Enchanted Sicily” they dubbed this collection. Which begs the question: does it always have to be Sicily? Couldn’t they just do Dolce and Gabbana via Hans Christian Andersen, without the necessity to rope themselves to the rocky shore of la Regione Siciliana?

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Dolce and Gabbana autumn/winter 2014

Perhaps D&G’s blinkered inspirational outlook stems from nationalistic pride, or some psychological need, like E.T., to perpetually phone home, shackling themselves to their idealogical birthplace (it’s easy to forget that only Domenico was actually born there: Stefano comes from Milano). But the trademark of Dolce and Gabbana isn’t Sicily. It’s their sense of exuberance, their expert cut, an admittedly southern Italian taste for outré style coupled with something more northern, more sophisticated and quieter. They’re kind of like the perfect offspring of Armani and Versace, combining hot-blooded Mediterranean with cool classicism.

These are niggling concerns, as they delivered a fine collection without the restriction of theme that has weighted their work in the past. This was Sicily only in name. Or rather, merely in the press notes.

Domenico and Stefano seem to be gradually weaning themselves away from their favourite hot-spot season by season. The result? They are broadening their horizons, and the scope of their work. It can only be a good thing. They’re a little old to be spending so much time back at home with mama.

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